If you were to turn over a chair in a Minnesota public library, like at the Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, you might find a tag noting the chair was manufactured by MINNCOR, a quasi public-private business operation within the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC). MINNCOR products are made by Minnesota inmates who make furniture for everything from public libraries to student dormitories. They also weld docks for Minnesota lakes and pack balloons destined for festive events. Additionally, minimum security work crews organized through the DOC – separate from MINNCOR’s operations – build low-income homes in greater Minnesota and have even assembled a sports facility dome on the University of Minnesota campus. The work of these inmates is all around us, yet hidden in plain sight.
Jesse, an inmate whose name has been changed for his safety, would be bussed early in the morning from his prison facility to the suburbs to pick up trash and clean up dog feces at a suburban dog park. Jesse is Black, which isn’t common among these work crews. White inmates tend to command less attention when working in affluent communities like Eden Prairie or Edina.
On one occasion while working, Jesse was berated over conditions in the park by the park’s manager. Even the city employee didn’t know that Jesse was an inmate subcontracted to work there. For Jesse, there is no way to defend himself against being treated unfairly since he is in custody. Jesse has learned that prison workers are convenient, unprotected and an unseen labor force exploited by Minnesota corporations and public entities. Jesse explained that upon entering prison and working he, “thought that it would rehabilitate [him]. But there is no rehab. It is business.”
Part two of Twin Cities Daily Planet’s investigative series on Minnesota’s public prison labor system reveals that enterprises as varied as Fortune 500 companies, family-owned small business and even the public higher education system receive exploitatively cheap labor from Minnesota inmates through MINNCOR. (See Principles of less eligibility PART I.)
While most inmates languish making less than $1 an hour, public records indicate that Minnesota Department of Corrections executives, including those at MINNCOR, made over $100,000 per year in fiscal year 2015-16. MINNCOR CEO David Milton made $58 an hour, approximately $120,000 per year starting in February 2016. Despite numerous lengthy, in-person conversations Milton declined to speak on the record for this article. Milton and his executive team lease inmate labor to private companies, government entities and nonprofits and manage the prison canteen system – the internal grocery and convenience store for inmates. MINNCOR’s overall sales revenue has expanded to $44 million for 2015 alone, with profits going to the DOC general fund and MINNCOR’s budget.
In 2003 the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill directing MINNCOR to be self-sustaining. This applied greater pressure to reduce costs and shift institutional inertia decisively towards profiting. The first impacted revenue generator was the canteen system.
That same year, the state’s disparate canteen systems were consolidated under MINNCOR. 2003 was also the first time that MINNCOR was profitable. Annual profits for 2003 totaled $100,000, jumping to $2.5 million in 2004. Writing in the Stillwater’s prison-produced and award-winning newspaper, Prison Mirror, investigative journalist and inmate Matt Gretz explained that when MINNCOR consolidated the canteen the expectation from inmates was that bulk purchases would cause prices to go down. Instead, canteen prices increased.
Centralization allowed the state to dip more easily into MINNCOR profits as budget cuts abound – putting more pressure on MINNCOR to generate profits. According to annual reports in 2008, canteen sales were 18 percent of MINNCOR’s revenue. By 2014 canteen sales amounted to $10.9 million, almost 25 percent of overall sales revenue for MINNCOR. This means that the single largest portion of money that MINNCOR earns comes from taxing the low wages that the organization pays inmates. After MINNCOR deducts up to 80 percent of an inmate worker’s pay for everything from the cost of confinement to victim restitution and medical co-pays, the little that is left of an inmate’s paycheck often goes to the canteen.
Wages have declined while canteen items increase in costs putting pressure on families to support their incarcerated loved ones monetarily. Pam Caliguri, the mother of Zeke Caliguri who is currently serving a 22-year sentence in Minnesota prisons, would regularly send her son the limit of $300 a month. Most families could not afford to do the same.
Just as a city employee had no idea that Jesse was a subcontracted inmate laborer for the park system, many of the organizations that contract with MINNCOR have varying degrees of understanding of the inmate labor they benefit from.
The institutions that use prison labor vary widely. Currently, the largest private contract with MINNCOR is with Anagram, the self-described “largest balloon manufacturer in the United States” and a subsidiary of a global conglomerate, AMSCAM. Headquartered in Eden Prairie, Anagram represented almost 19 percent of total revenue for MINNCOR in 2016, a nearly $9 million contract. Multiple prison facilities have balloon packaging with some having around-the-clock activity. The company declined requests to comment further, directing questions to MINNCOR CEO David Milton.
Another one of MINNCOR’s largest contractors is the University of Minnesota (UMN). According to records obtained from the UMN through Data Practices Act requests, between Feb. 1, 2008, to March 30, 2017, UMN amassed purchases from MINNCOR totaling $706,426.58. Items purchased were mostly dorm furniture and various types of chairs. In addition, the university also contracts with MINNCOR for laundry services for an unspecified cost. Records and comments from DOC also indicate that a work crew was on campus to erect the university’s winter sports dome.
In an email, when asked whether UMN is aware of low wages and exploitative working conditions being used for the university’s benefit, Steve Henneberry the university’s assistant director of public relations stated: “MINNCOR Industries has been a partner for university units, producing quality products in a timely and efficient manner, and we are aware of MINNCOR’s mission to ‘provide offenders job skills training to support positive behavior and successful transition into the community, at no cost to taxpayers.’” UMN is not alone among higher education institutions in working with MINNCOR, as the Minnesota State system has purchased a larger assortment of dorm and office furniture from the operation.
Inmate laborers with MINNCOR also provide tailoring services for the same law enforcement that put them behind bars. A conversation with police gear manufacturer KEEPRS President Wendy Klinefelter Tragiai was tense. She said that they contract with MINNCOR for sewing and alterations to law enforcement uniforms. She claimed that it was a small part of their business. When asked if she knew inmates get paid less than $1 per hour, she expressed disbelief and said they were unaware. However, Wendy defended KEEPRS by inaccurately claiming that MINNCOR is a for-profit company, thereby justifying the wages.
3M Corporation (3M) is the biggest global company using MINNCOR. 3M has been involved with prison labor and DOC since at least the 1990s. According to a 2009 Legislative Auditor report, 3M has paid MINNCOR an estimated $4 million between 2006 to 2009. 3M is both a client and contractor. In 2009, 3M was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to supply equipment to make digital license plates, a shift from the mechanized press. In fiscal year 2016, 3M bought almost $3 million worth of goods from MINNCOR, making 3M the second largest private sales contract with MINNCOR. Despite email correspondence and repeated phone calls, 3M Global Media Manager Lori S. Anderson refused to comment on their relationship with MINNCOR and instead diverted questions to MINNCOR CEO David Milton.
Prison labor does not have to be paid cheaply to offer a worthwhile service. In contrast to Minnesota’s efforts, a 2014 computer coding curriculum for inmates was developed by Northern California nonprofit The Last Mile (TLM). In 2016 they rolled out TLM Works a web development startup inside the San Quentin California Prison. TLM Works pays a minimum of $16.79 an hour. Presently, there are 125 inmates in the educational portion with five currently coding and 24 states vying for access to the program in their prison facilities. Revenue generated from the development project go back into the nonprofit, serving as a self-sustaining resource.
Program director Natrina Gandana explained that she has learned that inmates are fully capable of doing the work and need not be restricted to manual labor.
”If you give them more they will respond,” she said. “If you keep the bar low, you don’t get the full potential.”
Consequences of fighting back
Inside the prison, guys are always talking to each other. They talk about how the cost is too high to make a call home, how someone’s back hurts after a long day’s work, how education programs have become a hollow shell of what they used to be. Zeke is one of those who is always listening and taking notes. He, along with Jesse and several fellow inmates, recognized the patterns and clarified the levels of exploitation. What Zeke was always missing was a way to communicate to the outside. What prison rights activist Alisha Volante offered was a viable platform to make that connection, which in turn helped Pam become a stronger advocate.
On the outside, Volante worked closely with Pam to coordinate the families of the incarcerated. Having a dynamic relationship between those inside and family members outside gave inmates an outlet to speak about the conditions they were dealing with to a wider audience. Collectively their efforts were focused on advocating for a parole board and the reinstatement of a prison ombudsman, or advocate, here in Minnesota. The original ombudsman office was created in the 1970s, as a response to the New York Attica prison riots. As the New York Time reported at the time, the Minnesota prison ombudsman was unique in the U.S. Unlike other similar roles, the prison ombudsman was a completely independent entity reporting directly to the governor and was able to hold the DOC accountable. However, Minnesota’s prison ombudsman was defunded in 2003.
Earlier this year Pam, Volante and a group of fellow advocates met with DOC officials over the status of inmate organizers, following accusations from prison officials that they had engaged in a conference call with inmates – a violation of communication policies. DOC officials told the women that “we promise you there will not be retribution for your group.” Two days later, Zeke was transferred to Goodhue County Jail, a location just over an hour outside of Minneapolis in Red Wing. When asked for comment, Fitzgerald said DOC cannot comment. Three other inmates on the conference call had been met with punitive measures by DOC, including administrative segregation (also known as solitary confinement) and loss of phone privileges. Like Zeke, they had also worked a variety of jobs behind the walls of Minnesota prisons and have been vocal critics of prison policy.
Activists have argued that Zeke and his mother Pam have been retaliated against due to their efforts to draw attention to the abusive and exploitative nature of the DOC and MINNCOR’s work schemes, as well as other injustices committed against those who are incarcerated. Volante, along with many of the inmates, families and organizers she works with, believe that Zeke is being targeted because he is educated and identified as a leader among inmates.
University of Minnesota Professor Michelle Phelps is a scholar on the sociology of punishment and is an affiliate faculty member with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. She explained that education programs were also seen with suspicion as sources of subversion. Independent-minded inmates are a threat to a system that depends on perceived control.
When Zeke was transferred to Goodhue County, Pam said that her efforts to support Zeke were met with even more resistance from DOC. “No matter how much I fought it, it came from higher up. [Zeke is] too smart. He’s too respected by the guys. They are fearful that the guys would follow him. They assumed he would lead a strike,” she said.
Over the phone with Pam after the transfer to Goodhue, Zeke summed it up, “Mom, they don’t want to hear my name again, they don’t want to hear from you anymore. They chose a way that silences us both.” Regarding questions related to Zeke’s transfer, Fitzgerald stated, “Due to our prison population being over capacity, we must send offenders to county jails. Zeke Caligiuri is one of 405 offenders housed out of our facilities in county jails at this time.”
Goodhue County Jail houses prison inmates as part of its efforts in 2013 to relieve statewide overcrowding. Goodhue offers limited programming and services since jails are not designed for long-term confinement. Phone calls to the jail are more expensive because they are exempt from protections over price-gouging in prison. Many of Zeke’s writing materials and books were lost during the transfer or stored out of his reach. It’s harder for him to write given the lack of resources.
“They have taken some of the major components of his life that I don’t know if he will ever get back. There are times he can’t talk to me. They have switched up his meds. They have destabilized him,” Volante said.
According to a contract obtained through a public records request, county jails like where Zeke is held receive a $55 per diem, per inmate, to cover costs, including health care. Accordingly, “any care beyond basic medical, mental health and dental care must be approved by the State’s Health Services representative” – a process that Pam believed was used to restrict Zeke’s medical treatment. In recent months, Zeke has had recurring kidney conditions that have left him in excruciating pain. Before she died, Pam feared that as Zeke’s condition worsened he is less likely to get the care he needs, especially due to his organizing efforts.
Still, the work persists. With Pam and Volante’s efforts on the outside, and Zeke and his companions organizing from within, they collectively discovered that those that advocate for change are viewed as dangerous by DOC, because this growing and persistent group of advocates and inmates – through events in community, through contact with government officials, through storytelling – are determined to be visible.
“I think part of what we’d like to do is take these voices and illuminate some of these problems that hinder folks and keep them from being their authentic selves,” said Volante of her work with inmates. “In a way that doesn’t take away from them serving their time and paying their debt to society. And we can question what some of those debts are, and the length of time that might be. But even if we don’t question that at all, there is an underlying human quality in how people should be treated.”